The Norwegian Research Council awarded Abilia the prize for Most Innovative Company for 2010 for its advanced IT tools for the disabled, which have helped children with cerebral palsy to talk and function at school. It’s the biggest export success story so far for IT Funk, a government-commissioned R&D programme that is helping those “differently abled” via new ICT solutions that may eventually improve the quality of life for all.
The origins of IT Funk date back to the early 1990s, when the Norwegian Ministry of Social Affairs started a collaborative effort with the Ministry of Industry for assisted devices, according to Maja Arnestad, IT Funk programme coordinator ICT for the disabled. Sweden had a similar project at the time that focused on getting better technology suppliers domestically for assisted devices. The Norwegian programme was run by Innovation Norway, which focused on product development.
The programme was disbanded after a few years. The Norwegian Ministry of Industry later started to get interested in telematics, the technology of sending, receiving and storing information via telecommunication devices to control remote objects. As a result, the ministry approached the Research Council of Norway, which started up IT Funk in 1998 as a broad-based concept with the goal of reaching a wider user group. The aim was to contribute to accessibility for all – including the disabled – through the use of ICT.
An example of this “innovation for all” is the vibrating ring on a mobile phone. What was once considered technology for the hard-of-hearing has now become a commonplace application for people who do not want to be disturbed in meetings, while still monitoring their calls. The premise is that at some point in everyone’s life, they are disabled in some way, whether it is trying to text message while driving or car or being blind from birth.
“Everybody is five-years old once, some are five-years old their whole life,” said Arnestad. “What used to be characteristic of disability on permanent basis is now a situation a person is in, sometimes for a long time or a short time.”
© Øyvind Langum/Abilia
Øystein Johnsen and Terje Myhre of Abilia received
the Most Innovative Company Award for 2010
together with Synne (8) who has been using the
company’s advanced IT tools since she was 2 ½ years old
IT Funk’s greatest success story so far is Abilia. The company has received funding from the Research Council under the IT Funk programme and won the council’s award for Most Innovative Company for 2010. The company has produced the world’s first eye-operated driving system for wheelchairs and the helped develop the world’s first thought-operated driving system for wheelchairs in collaboration with Brown University and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston in the US.
The company’s two most important products are Rolltalk voice devices and MEMO series of planning tools for persons with cognitive problems. The Rolltalk has been used, for example, to help Synne, an eight-year old Norwegian girl with cerebral palsy, to talk via Rolltalk’s touchscreen. She can only move her arms and struggles to speak. By touching the screen, she can tell the device what to say and Rolltak acts as her voice. It also drives her wheelchair, sends text messages and e-mail, and operates her TV and games.
“Abilia’s innovation is extremely user-driven,” said Eirik Normann, acting executive director of the Research Council’s division for innovation. “This kind of innovation will become more and more important in the years ahead as we face the increasing challenges of an ageing population.”
“It’s vital to our users to show that they can think and understand,” added Øystein Johnsen, Abilia creative director. “They absolutely need this ability in order to take part in society in as natural a way as possible. The underlying principle for everything we do is to enable our users to transform their role from that of spectator to active participant.”
AAL Joint Programme
IT Funk also helps coordinate projects with international partners though its collaboration with Ambient Assisted Living (AAL) Joint Programme, a joint European research, development activity with 23 participating countries. The projects focus on enhancing the quality if life among the elderly through ICT.
So far, there have been four calls for AAL projects since the collaboration began in 2007. The first one targeted the elderly with chronic conditions, the second on social interaction, and the third on solutions for independence in a self-service society. The latest one is for mobility.
One successful example is Tomas Uno Vilhelm Brusell, a dentist and computer buff who wanted to combine operating a computer while doing dental work. He came up with the idea of using the inside of his cheek as a touch pad. He soon realized that the technology could also be used for the elderly and disabled with none or limited mobility in their upper extremity. He formed a project called Cap Mouse, together with HMC International of Belgium and Swedish companies Lots Design, Stinct AB and PRO, which received AAL funding under Call 3.
The object of the project is to develop a handsfree tongue interface based on extra oral capacitive sensors mounted on a head set for the elderly with mobility problems. The aim is that this will be integrated into smart-phone device that can steer a wheelchair, open doors and mange remote controls. The sensor is within the vicinity of the person’s mouth, with the tongue controlling the commands through cursor movements, clicks, double clicks and right clicks.
Other AAL projects with Norwegian partners include Co-LIVING (Sintef ICT and Trondheim municipality), Join-In (Northern Research Institute and National Centre for Integrated Care and Telemedicine and Seniornett), V2ME (Hospital IT), IS-ACTIVE (Norwegian Centre for Telemedicine, University Hospital of North Norway, Tromsø), A2e2 (Hospital IT), and REMOTE (Norwegian Centre for Telemedicine).
© Brusell Dental
An EU, AAL Joint Programme/Norwegian Research
Council financed project is developing the CapMouse
handsfree input device that can be integrated with a
mobile device, the Octopus.